Dr. Watson Will See You Now

Today’s edition of the Washington Post has an interesting article,by Martin Ford, on the potential application of IBM’s Jeopardy!-winning Watson technology in medicine.   You will probably recall that medical diagnosis was mentioned prominently by IBM as a potential practical use of Watson’s technology. On September 12, IBM and Wellpoint, the largest medical benefits company in the US by membership, announced an agreement for the joint development of medical applications.

The article points out some of the areas in which Watson could provide real assistance to medical personnel, based on its ability to process huge amounts of information in unstructured, natural language documents.

Watson could churn through millions of case histories to learn what diagnosis is likely to be correct and what treatment would be the most effective. The system could almost instantly process medical textbooks, electronic medical records and the latest published research, illuminating obscure links among studies in seemingly unrelated specialties. Watson could someday be a standard diagnostic tool. Its ability to make sense of a universe of data would be far beyond that of any person or team of experienced physicians.

Watson’s ability to process enormous amounts of information will come in handy; it has been estimated that the overall body of medical knowledge doubles in size about every five years.  A more efficient, and less error prone, method of assimilating the flood of new information might help check the ongoing escalation of health care costs.  Combined with the growing  use of electronic medical records, the system could help spot unusual conditions, or rare but serious drug interactions.

Mr. Ford also points out that, if Watson can establish a track record as a diagnostician, it might help alleviate a projected shortage of physicians, especially in primary care. Some medical practices already use physician’s assistants to help them care for more patients; a system like Watson might make this a lot more common.

The article also touches on the threat that systems like Watson might pose to some sectors of the economy.  I’ve mentioned before the idea, suggested by the late computer science and AI pioneer, Joseph Weizenbaum, that intelligent systems might devalue routine mental labor, just as the Industrial Revolution devalued routine physical labor.  (I wrote about a proposal to use Watson in marketing not long ago.)   As with other disruptive technologies (genetic engineering comes to mind), there is, in some sense, no turning back. The knowledge of how to build Watson can’t be unlearned; the genie can’t be put back in the bottle.  To the extent that humans possess intelligence beyond that of machines, we will need to use it to make wise use of our discoveries.

[Martin Ford is the author of The Lights in the Tunnel: Automation, Accelerating Technology and the Economy of the Future; he also writes the Econfuture blog.]

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